About eight of us get on the Route 4 bus at 1:30 p.m. this Saturday at the relatively new Metro Transit bus station at 420 NW 5th Street, which is just down the street from Oklahoma City’s National Memorial.
The Route 4 bus, which runs from downtown to the Belle Isle shopping area (Wal-Mart, Old Navy, Ross, Shoe Carnival, etc.), runs on an hourly schedule—at least for now, anyway—and its riders are mostly shoppers and people going to work.
Oklahoma City officials have recently announced that the Route 4 bus route will run every two hours, instead of every hour, and other routes are changing as well, prompting valid protests in the community about class inequity. The cutbacks are essentially designed to save the city money at the expense of low-income people in the city.
I decided to take a Route 4 bus ride Saturday to check out the situation.
On this particular hot day, the Route 4 bus is a cool oasis from the sweltering heat. My fellow riders are a mixture of Oklahoma Cityans. The bus pulls out of the station, goes south down Hudson, then takes an immediate right on 4th Street. It then turns right on Walker, and we begin to make our way through the city to the Belle Isle shopping district next to Penn Square Mall.
Traveling down Walker, the bus first passes some typical inner-city sights such as overgrown, empty lots with weeds and fence scraps. The shimmering heat makes them seem even more dilapidated. The bus then passes Brown’s Bakery, Kaiser’s, St. Anthony’s Hospital, all longtime Oklahoma City landmarks.
But then it goes past 13th Street, and we are now in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Heritage Hills. This is when the ride, for me at least, becomes a metaphor or a symbol. Riding Route 4, if you pay attention, gives you a real lesson in the new, hyper class-oriented Oklahoma and America.
Traveling through Heritage Hills is ironic, of course, because most of the complaints about eliminating bus routes or offering them less frequently is that our city’s poorest residents will suffer the most. Most people who ride the bus do so because they do not own cars. This seems pretty obvious. Moving past the gargantuan Heritage Hill homes with their immaculate lawns, Route 4 raises larger questions about class issues in today’s Oklahoma.
Why would our culture want to intentionally make it more difficult for low-income people to get to work? Many Route 4 riders are employed at Belle Isle businesses or the adjacent Penn Square Mall. This, too, seems obvious. In addition, why would our culture make it more difficult for lower-income people to shop at a discounts store such as Wal-Mart or Ross?
Once outside of Heritage Hills, the Route 4 bus heads north on Walker through the Paseo District, and then passed Edgemere Elementary School, and then to 36th Street, when it takes a left. We pass the Iron Star, the Gazette, and then we move through the Western Avenue intersection. Soon, to our left, riders see the impressive community garden maintained by the Boys and Girls Club at Memorial Park.
A women on the bus engages the driver in a conversation, and the ride overall is comfortable and relaxing. I have been taking photographs out the bus windows, and no one seems to even notice. At one point, I talk to a woman about an old building we pass, and we share some city memories.
Now we turn, turn, turn. We turn right onto Classen Avenue, then left on 39th Street, right on Georgia, another right on Mattern, then left on Blackwelder, to Northwest Expressway, then left on Classen again, and then we pass IHOP, Chili’s, and then riders find ourselves, at last, on Belle Isle Drive in front of the Wal-Mart.
Most everyone on the bus gets off here. Here the bus picks up twelve to fifteen people, who are mostly shoppers judging from their bags and packages. One woman gets on the bus with her young daughter, a baby in a stroller, and shopping bags. She is gets busy entertaining and coddling her baby.
The bus moves on, and so we make our way back to the bus station. At the Belle Isle and Northwest Expressway intersection, we are held up at a long red light, and I count four SUV’s around us. There is only one person—the drivers—in each vehicle and the symbolism becomes apparent once again.
Bus officials, for example, have blamed higher fuel costs for the cutbacks. Ironically, those of us on the bus are actually saving fuel in this age of decreasing oil supplies. The surrounding SUV drivers are wasting oil. So the world is running out of oil, yet our public policy is to punish those people who ride buses and reward those who drive Hummers. (The government gives business tax breaks for Hummer owners.) This is Bush-era philosophy, which has already precipitated one war and record high gasoline prices.
If anything, given the world’s current energy situation, the city should expand its bus service and try to get more people to ride. Fuel costs will continue to rise, especially under the immoral and corrupt energy policies of President George Bush., Admittedly, getting people to ride the bus is especially difficult in a place like Oklahoma City, which is geographically spread out in an enormous swath of SUV-friendly swath of land and whose power structure is dominated by local energy company executives.
Yet the city has already made some great strides in this direction by building a great central bus terminal and maintaining a fleet of comfortable, well air-conditioned buses. Riding the bus in the Oklahoma City area is easy, relatively cheap (a one-way ticket is $1.25, but there are discounted passes), safe, and comfortable. There is even a rumor that the city buses will soon have bike racks, so cyclists can take buses to different areas of the city and then cycle back home or to other interesting areas of the city. This will increase the numbers of riders on the buses.
Meanwhile, a local charity, Catholic Worker House, issued this alert about the bus cutbacks recently:
“According to information given to the Catholic Worker House, the city is appropriating about 91% of its expected income. State law only requires the City to setback 5%, but OKC is setting back nearly 9%. Oklahoma City's public transportation system may be at risk. The system is already a bare minimum service. There is no fat to cut, only services that are necessary for these people to get to work. They have no other alternatives for transportation to their jobs.”
The bottom line here is that rich people continue to get richer on the backs of the poor in today’s world. Rich people probably do not much care if a low-income person can get to work or if they have to wait a miserable two hours in the scalding heat to get home. Caring about people who cannot afford cars is so passé under the Bush-era, conservative juggernaut.